Acquiring data is no longer a problem. It's everywhere, and we're already quite adept at hoarding it in databases. The issue now is making sense of all those signals and finding stories in the stream.
That's where visualizations come in. Whether you're dealing with a static graph or a real-time data wave, the act of seeing data unlocks much of its utility.
Ben Fry, an author and speaker at next week's Making Data Work online conference, has been studying and furthering visualization for years. In the following Q&A, Fry examines the current state of visualization and makes the case for visualization to be treated as its own field.
How has data visualization changed over the last few years?
Ben Fry: Ten years ago I had to explain that 1) big data is coming 2) visualization is a solution. Five years ago that became "visualization is a solution." At this point, people are aware of both and just impatient to get answers for how to solve problems that they're dealing with. Since I first started this in academia, it's a surprising shift to see the kind of demand in the commercial world.
What are the biggest problems with data visualization?
Ben Fry: We're good at collecting data, and congratulating ourselves for how much data we have, but it's like bragging about your performance at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Everyone can do that part, the sort of thing people should brag about is just how simple they've made the problem.
Do visualizations fall into the programming domain, or is it closer to design?
Ben Fry: I think it requires both. You need to think about it as a data problem, which requires programming and design, rather than as a design problem that has a data component, or a data problem that has a design component. It needs to be considered its own field.
In the write-up for your Making Data Work presentation it says you're seeking to "bring the individual fields together as part of a single process." Can you expand on that?
Ben Fry: The idea is that the roles for working with data are split between old fields, and they don't address the right cross-section of areas. My Ph.D. work was about looking at data problems as their own field. It's just not effective to have computer scientists or statisticians solve one part, and then hand things off to designers to pretty things up.
What are the best tools for visualizations?
Ben Fry: I like to build custom software first, and then build tools later, once you have a repeatable set of things that you want to address.
Do visualizations create deeper understanding?
Ben Fry: That's a big question. One way I like to think about it is that our visual system is the highest bandwidth channel by which we can take in information, and hand it off to our brains for processing. Our brains do a lot of work without us even "thinking" about it, so even before you've actively done anything, you've covered a lot of ground in dozens of milliseconds. That's really powerful, and visualization is a way to make use of how we're naturally built.
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Learn more about this topic from Visualizing Data.
How you can take advantage of data that you might otherwise never use? With the help of the free software programming environment called Processing, this book helps you represent data accurately on the Web and elsewhere, complete with user interaction, animation, and more. You'll learn basic visualization principles, how to choose the right kind of display for your purposes, and how to provide interactive features to design entire interfaces around large, complex data sets.